With its brand new $100 million terminal having opened in 2015, Antigua and Barbuda boasts one of the most modern airports in the Caribbean – as well as one of the best connected, with numerous routes to Europe, the US and neighbouring islands. Airport Authority chief Stanley Smith reveals how the improvements are helping boost arrivals and the plans in store for future development
You’ve been airport CEO since 2012 and have seen significant changes, not least the new terminal that was finalised in 2015. Tell us about the challenges and accomplishments you’ve had along the way.
I was part of the terminal construction process that started in early 2012. The challenges had a lot to do with working with the Chinese company doing the construction. In cases like that, you usually have a language and cultural barrier. For the engineering aspect of it, we had extremely long meetings to ensure that what we wanted in the building was translated to the Chinese. The building was designed to Chinese standards. However, if the Antigua standards were preferable, they would supersede the Chinese standards. Our next challenge was ensuring a seamless transfer from the old building to the new building. Most people expected us to keep a section of the old building open and phase it in. But we didn’t think that would work well because you would be duplicating resources and facilities. So we spent at least nine months going through the whole transition planning process to ensure that once the old building was closed, the new building would be open immediately. In terms of accomplishments, we can now boast that we are one of the most modern airports in the Caribbean with 23,000 square metres of space with all of the amenities that come with a new and modern airport – a common use terminal system, a sophisticated security system…
What is the old building being used for now?
Right now it is mostly for administrative purposes. But we are in the final stages of a terminal reuse plan to harmonise the old building with the new building. We are looking at additional administrative spaces and a seamless tour operator operation from the new terminal building to the old terminal building. We’re also looking at an airport hotel and, most importantly, a visitor’s centre. What we would want is for an investor to take the entire old terminal building and implement this terminal reuse plan.
Has that been approved by the Citizenship by Investment programme (CIP)?
Yes, it could be looped into the CIP. There could also be some benefits or tax cuts.
After three years and nearly $100 million of investment, the new VC Bird International Airport terminal opened in 2015. How has the expansion impacted the economic development of Antigua and Barbuda in terms of numbers?
The first three months after opening we saw a passenger growth increase of between four and five percent in about five different airlines.
Could you tell me a little about the connectivity the airport offers?
We cover the entire Caribbean region, but also North America – Miami, Charlotte, Atlanta, New York… For Europe, you have Italy, the UK…
What’s your strategy to attract more airlines to Antigua and Barbuda, especially from Europe?
We work in tandem with the tourism authority, so we go to World Routes as well as Routes Americas. Those are conventions where we meet with the different airlines. Over a two-day period we would meet with as many as 21 different airlines. It’s really selling the product. We concentrate on areas in which we don’t have a presence – we’re looking at places like Dubai, Manchester in the UK – or further north of London – and other European countries. In the United States, we are looking at places like Chicago. Most of our traffic comes from the southern states of the United States.
We are one of the most modern airports in the Caribbean with 23,000 square metres of space with all of the amenities that come with that
With sterling falling post-Brexit how does Antigua and Barbuda plan to retain its visitors from the UK and keep on growing its numbers?
That’s going to be very challenging because if the pound is falling then the propensity to spend is a bit lower in the UK. The competition is higher because it is more affordable to go to the UK from other countries. So the strategy to get more people from the UK would be to increase marketing and the attraction here. Because Antigua caters a lot to high-end passengers, I don’t think the effect will be that great.
How would you evaluate the country’s attractiveness? Why choose Antigua and Barbuda over other eastern Caribbean markets?
Because of where Antigua is located geographically it’s one of the first islands you reach coming from the UK, so it’s much cheaper to get a flight here than to go further south. But also the connectivity: you have LIAT, our regional carrier, which is able to take passengers from here to neighbouring islands.
How do you strive to give visitors a good experience from the moment they arrive?
What we have accomplished with this new terminal building is a very seamless movement of passengers, both inbound and outbound. There are now loading bridges, which means the turnaround of aircraft is much quicker and you’re not affected so much by inclement weather. We have increased the number of immigration booths, so the processing of passengers is much quicker. We have also increased the processing of passengers through customs. But we have also introduced a paid fast-track service where premium passengers who don’t want to wait will be escorted from where they disembark the aircraft all the way through customs and immigration. And for outgoing it’s similar: we have more common use areas and we have significantly increased the number of check-in counters, so the ticketing processing is much smoother. There is an outgoing fast-track service as well. Inside the terminal building, we have increased the shopping experience significantly. We have a lot more shops, a lot more variety, and a lot more quality. We are also the only airport in the eastern Caribbean where you will find an executive lounge with a balcony. It can accommodate in excess of 150 passengers.
As you mentioned before, Antigua and Barbuda tends to attract higher net worth individuals, some of whom might prefer to take their own transportation to the island. Can the airport also be used privately?
We have a fixed base operator – Signature Flight Support – that accommodates private jets. Commercial is on one side of the airport, while private jets are on the other.
We have secured some of the most sophisticated hold luggage screening facilities, so we comply not only with the Transport Security Administration requirement but also UK standards
Security is a major concern for travellers. How would you evaluate your airport’s ability to provide a safe environment?
Being a new terminal building we were able to secure some of the most sophisticated hold luggage screening facilities, so we comply not only with the Transport Security Administration requirement but also UK standards. We have an automatic explosive detection system throughout the hold luggage screening facility. In terms of cabin baggage, we have regular X-ray machines but also ion scans that are used for explosive detection.
What plans are there for the airport in terms of innovation, expansion, renovations or other changes that an international investor could participate in?
The building is designed for 1.5 million passengers. Currently our capacity is about 860,000 passengers. So the throughput is not really a concern for at least the next 10 to 15 years. But we are looking to add to the infrastructure. There are three phases: a food court, which we are planning for the lower level and that can accommodate as many as four restaurants; the terminal reuse plan – the old terminal building will be integrated into the new terminal building by adding shops, a welcome centre and a mini-airport hotel; and the expansion of the air side to move from four loading bridges to at least 13. Because of where the airport is located and all the activities happening around it we are also looking at more of an airport city – building out around the airport to support the facilities.
The new Barbuda airport could compete with a small international airport because we have ensured that the runway is as wide as you find anywhere else
How could the new Barbuda airport positively affect the development of Barbuda itself and attract more investors to the twin islands?
It will stimulate direct flights to Barbuda. The airport has a 1,800-metre-long, 45-metre-wide runway and sufficient apron to include at least four aircraft at any one time. It has all the necessary facilities for a light-to-medium jet aircraft coming in to Barbuda. Once a right-sized terminal building is attached to that facility, it will serve Barbuda in its fullest. It could compete with a small international airport because we ensured that the runway had a width of 45 metres – the largest you have at any international airport, such as Heathrow or Gatwick.
The airport is the first brand that a traveller comes upon when arriving in Antigua and Barbuda. How would you describe the soul of this country? What makes it special?
I would say the environment, the people, as well as the infrastructure. But in addition to that is the bold initiative that has been taken by the government. It is not only looking at individual infrastructure but infrastructure that supports the economy. One of the main areas it is examining is increasing the number of hotel rooms. There are 365 beaches here and they are some of the best in the Caribbean, so once you get the hotels to support them, you will continue to have a wonderful product.